I took a break from some of the heavy reading I’ve been doing lately to read the highly entertaining Flavia de Luce series, by Alan Bradley. Flavia is an eleven year old chemistry genius who lives with her father and two older sisters in the rundown de Luce mansion, Buckshaw. Ten years before the first novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Harriet de Luce—her mother—went missing in Tibet. Flavia has grown up mostly alone. Her father has retreated into his grief and his stamp collection. Her oldest sister, Ophelia, and older sister, Daphne, torment her and try to make her think she was adopted. Flavia usually gets her own back, but putting urushiol in Ophelia’s lipstick or sulfur gas in her chocolates.
Flavia also has a knack for finding dead bodies and an insatiable curiosity about poisons and decomposition. In the first book, she stumbles across an old colleague of her father’s dead in the garden. In the second book, a puppeteer is electrocuted during a performance in front of the entire village. In the third, a gypsy is attacked a poacher killed. In the fourth, an actress meets her end inside Buckshaw itself. In the fifth book, Flavia finds the former church organist in the crypt of St. Tancred’s. even in the sixth book, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, when the focus of the book moves away from solving mysteries to the growth of the character, a man is pushed under a train.
Of course, Flavia doesn’t investigate alone. The local constabulary have jurisdiction. Inspector Hewitt is far from incompetent. Flavia, however, has a keenly deductive mind, has a talent for questioning people without letting them know they’re being questioned, and is almost always in the right spot at the right time to discover the key piece of evidence. What made me fall in love with the character is her lively wit and disregard for the rules. I don’t entirely buy her as an eleven year old, but I buy her as a unique character.
The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, the last book, is a departure from the rest of the series. The first five books follow the pattern of an English country mystery. A body is discovered. Flavia and the police race each other to a solution, irritating each other along the way. In the last book, the mystery of the man under the train plays a distant second to the mystery of what happened to Harriet in Tibet. There were clues scattered through the other books that members of the de Luce family have served king and country in various secret capacities that none of them can talk about because of the Official Secrets Act. The tone is very different, darker, than the rest of the books. But I enjoyed all of them.